Some of Afro avant-garde poet Harryette Mullen’s earlier books, such as Trimmings and S*PERM**K*T, were feminist metonyms influenced by Gertrude Stein’s idiosyncratic innovation Tender Buttons. Mullen’s latest offering, Sleeping With the Dictionary, is chimerical and nimble. It is permeated with that literary mestizo, the prose poem, too. Moonlighting as a Baedeker, her abecedarian table of contents guides literary sightseers through this ludic literary universe, where landings on anagram planets are commonplace.
In “Variation on a Theme Park,” Mullen, a postmodernist, postbellum, high-post Southern belle, hurls a mind-numbing left hook at the Western world’s undisputed paperweight champ—Shakespeare. Through economical use of Oulipo’s lexical games, Mullen makes transparent the architectonics of the Bard’s Sonnet CXXX. She deranges this “sister girl” verse—as Shakespeare had spoofed Petrarchan conceits—”transfiguring” it into a parodic lyric about Walt Disney and Mickey.
Fast-forwarding a few centuries, Mullen pens portraits of Af-Am scribes Ted Joans, Jayne Cortez, and Bob Kaufman. “Ted Joans at the Café Bizarre” is infused with sonic collocations; “Zen Acorn” (for Kaufman) employs ruminative anagrams; and the deferential “Fancy Cortex” is peppered with Cortez hypograms.
Mullen’s infectious linguistic torques can entrance readers, lulling them into believing that she is merely engaged in a cozy dialectic with Messrs. Webster and Roget. But she sculpts sardonic and insightful poems, such as “Naked Statues,” “We Are Not Responsible,” and “Wino Rhino,” too. These verses gleefully excoriate Western civilization’s sociohistorical inequities, like the whiteout of ancient Egypt, ethnic profiling, and homelessness, respectively.
Occasionally Mullen shoots a literary brick. “Jinglejangle,” although saturated with ambitious verbal calisthenics, feels overwrought and strategically mimetic of another poem, “Blah-Blah.”
Ultimately, Sleeping excavates the semi-permeable relationship between jabberwocky and logic. Mullen writes about being “licked all over by the English tongue.” Reading her innovative intellectual congresses and titular poem’s bawdy allusions, I realized I’d become a literary Peeping Tom. See, it became evident that Mullen, the language machine, and her lover, the lexicon, had been engaged in a heady, buck-wild affair from the word go!